What is not measured is lost

In a column yesterday, Tim Harford asks “are universities worth it?“. Surely a topic worth discussing. Yet there is an asymmetry in Harford’s summary of the debate. While Harford explicitly considers not just money but also time and intellectual resources as opportunity costs of running higher education, his taxonomy of the benefits is restricted to the financial.

Wages after graduation, universities’ effect on tourism, the generation of “useful inventions”, the effect on the GDP of “regional economies”: all of these are presented in the case for the defense. These are, it seems, going to supply us with the counterweight value to the various costs of increasing the scale and scope of higher education.

What is the ethical message of this approach? If a thing is not marketable, it is not valuable? What something is worth is what financial return it generates?

Look, I know how it sounds to argue for grander concepts of social value. We sound like fuzzy idealists harping on about society and knowledge and citizenry, hopelessly out of touch with the real world. We invite a polite, patronizing acknowledgement of our feeble objections, before the real people turn back to their spreadsheets to do the actual math.

Your Call Is Important To Us, idealists. Stay on the line!

Measurability is an irresistible force. We grasp at things that can be—however imperfectly—quantified. But it’s a curse. We are hypnotized by the quantifiable, and since money makes our world go round, that means: if it’s not marketable, it’s not valuable. The pull of monetization of value grows only more acute in a post-financial crisis, “austere” world. For higher education, it grows only more acute as the sticker price of tuition rises consistently above inflation across all types of institution. The commodification of higher education becomes a vicious cycle: as the price rises, and as anxiety about the job market rises, valuation in dollars and cents becomes more and more irresistible.

At best we get some lip service paid to—excuse me while I suppress a dry heave—“soft skills”.  The irony is that there is tangible value to having a smarter, more engaged, more critical, more literate, more numerate, more empathetic, more reflective society. It’s just hard to measure. Don’t you sometimes look around and wish for a more thoughtful world?

I have always hated a particularly weird and common example of measurability, which is the “traffic congestion costs Americans [incredibly large number of dollars] per year” article, always good for filling a column every so often. I mean, I hate traffic jams too, but I don’t run to the abacus when I get home to multiply my delay by my implied hourly wage! That just isn’t how the world works.

But we can measure it!

Still another example of the curse of measurability is in the gendered measurement of a nation’s “product”, a standard and undeniable critique from feminist economics:

According to Alfred Marshall, a founding father of the science, economics is “the study of men as they live and think and move in the ordinary business of life.” Mr Marshall’s casual allusion to “men” captures what feminist economists believe is the first major problem with economics, a habit of ignoring women. The economy, they argue, is often thought of as the world of money, machines and men. This is reflected in how GDP is measured.

Still another example is a foundational quandary of welfare economics. We build economics on the deliberately abstract foundation of “preferences” and “utility”, but immediately hit the wall when we realize that we can’t use these things in practice. We can’t actually measure these things or use them to compare wellbeing across groups of people. I’m sure you can imagine what kind of things we end up using as a proxy for wellbeing: dollars, income, wealth.

The terms we use to talk about the value of education matter. And, my fuzzy academic friends, we’ve been routed. The terms of the debate over what higher education is and should be are totally lost. It is dollars. I don’t think we’ll ever reverse that tide in valuing education without first changing the culture of higher education funding. Otherwise when we stick up for the principle of the damn thing we’re just pissing in the wind.

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